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> > > Brighton Festival: Complicite The Encounter

17 May 2016

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, Complicite’s The Encounter brings the limits of human consciousness into startling focus in an ambitious national and international co-production. Review by Colin Hambrook.

Performer Simon McBurney faces a futuristic black mannequin head, his hands either side of it.

Production shot of The Encounter (c) Robbie Jack.

The Encounter is an incredibly ambitious, multi-layered piece of storytelling that challenges our linear understanding of time.  A theatre for the mind, the story is created in our heads, through headphones using the latest sound technology. Centre stage is a mannequin, which houses binaural equipment used to deliver sound in a 360-degree rotation directly into our ears.

The Encounter engages its audience in a complex knitted weave of recorded and live voice and sound enabling solo performer and producer, Simon McBurney to play with past and present time. Using a minimal set – a table, bottles of water, piles of film acetate, a hammer – the objects are props placed on stage to further manipulate sound and distort our sense of reality.

The journey gets into swing once we’ve been introduced to the performer in his home studio with his 5-year-old daughter (now 7). He illustrates a 2-Dimensional understanding of time whilst comforting the little girl in an effort to get her to sleep. The audience are experiencing the dialogue in the present, though her part of the conversation has been recorded in the past.

McBurney is a magician revealing to his audience how he does his tricks, as he explains the nature of the density of binaural sound and how its devilish proximity – its as if you can feel his breath in your ear – can be used to fool us into believing we are listening to him in the present when the joke is that, in fact, he is a recording.

Then, we then enter the story within the story of the artist Simon McBurney on a journey to Brazil to encounter a people who have been on the edge of extinction. He introduces National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre (the subject of Amazon Beaming) who flew into the depths of the Amazon rainforest in 1969 in order to record the Mayoruna people of the jungle.

We are then taken on an intense struggle for life and death that takes us to the beginning of time itself – or at least a time 515 years before the white man intruded on the world of the tribes people bringing death and destruction in their wake.

Ultimately, The Encounter is a story about the dilemma, now, of a post Capitalist society that has fuelled its engines with oil – understood by the Mayoruna to be the blood of the planet – on a short-term consumerist ride to nowhere.

Performer, Simon McBurney holds a device up to a mannequin's head, amidst a black background.

The Encounter (c) Gianmarco Bresadola.

For the run of show since its first outing in Edinburgh last summer Talking Birds have teamed up with Complicite to experiment with using a form of live captioning through peoples’ hand held devices to convey the show to a deaf and hard-of-hearing audience.

With multiple layers of voice and sound working together, one of the challenges Associate Director Jemima James has had is to look at the script of this multifaceted piece and to break it down in a way that could convey its essence.

Being the consummate performer Simon McBurney is, the job of live captioning has been further complicated by his use of improvisation. He keeps his audience emotionally connected to the story taking on the guise of several characters, using a variety of languages and at one point even the body of a jaguar.

Partly because of the deviance from the script from performance to performance, James told us she has had to make difficult choices around what to show in the captioned rendition and when to reveal it, to give a deaf audience a flavor of what is happening aurally.

Take-up for the live captioned performances using the Talking Birds app has been between 5-20 people per show. The feedback has been good and the company are keen to take the partnership further with additional funding. However, the captioned version has some way to go and is clearly limited in being able to deliver this piece in its full complexity.

In a sense the hearing audience for The Encounter are being given a theatrical equivalent to the experience of the first audiences of moving image. We simply aren’t acquainted with recorded sound of this sophistication.

The Encounter is an amazing piece of work in which Simon McBurney keeps his audience mesmerized for two hours. At the end there was a prolonged two-minute silence to catch our breath, before the stage lights came up, giving the audience the signal to applaud. Appropriately, McBurney pays tribute to the sound engineers who are equal artists in making this performance what it is.

The Encounter goes on to Oxford Playhouse from 25-28 May 2016, before travelling to Vienna, Amsterdam, Montpelier and Lyon.

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